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Learning Problem

“Surprisingly enough, twentieth-century advances in literary interpretation and musical analysis have done little to foster an interdisciplinary method.  To put it bluntly, none exists.”

Lawrence Kramer, Poetry and Music – The Nineteenth Century and After (Gray)


         There exist a student in the 4th and 5th grade who struggles developing literacy skills (math and English) in a meaningful way, yet they contain a creative identity through music, and participate actively and passively in this medium on a day-to-day basis.  This learner struggles making meaningful connections with literary content that is taught to them, and are at risk of not acquiring future literary skills imperative to their future because of these meaningless connections.  In addition, the learner’s confidence to use literary skills is only made through meaningful connections and experiences with the content, by practicing with the content that build the learners skill set to be scholarly, mathy, or techy in an advantageous way.  Even when literary skills are learned, these learners typically finish their education with a lack of confidence using their literary skills.  For a student, it is easy to latch on to a singular form of literacy (defined as their strength) or they risk not progressing within the educational system.  This stance and perception of literacy leaves the student to identify themselves as scholarly, mathy, or techy, yet they will fail to see the connections to value other forms of literacy skills.


Graph below shows the trend in Numerical Operation proficiency levels for Whites, Hispanics, and Black groups in the fourth through twelfth grade. Topics like the order of operations are first taught during the years in which the gaps are the greatest between these groups (4th and 5th grade).  The order of operations is an attractive topic to address mathematics literary skills because of its value of acquiring additional mathematics literacy skills for the learner’s future.  It is also a quality topic in mathematics literacy because the order of operations is vertically aligned across the majority of all students curriculum, relevant through grades 4-12; and I felt as far as math is concerned, the order of operations was an appropriate topic in to begin as a foundation for this project.


A definition of literacy that gathers various kinds of literacy at work in environments that might be useful to teachers and students

In the past fifty years, hundreds of definitions of ‘literacy’ have been advanced by scholars, adult literacy workers and program planners (Roberts). Literacy in relationship to this papers is simply the way in which our culture as a whole thinks about knowledge and learning (literacy).  Due to recent brain research done by Dan Levitan, a Ph.D Neuroscientist,  where he studies the “brain on music”,  there seems to be an opportunity to include the creative mind of the user and music to compliment any expectations of the learner becoming more familiar with literacy skills: including writing structures contained in song writing and poetry writing, and even becoming familiar with fundamental rules in mathematics; such as the order of operations.  Lyricist, and musicians provide natural learning environments to capture these literary events and scenarios of writing verses and practicing the order of operations that could be brought to life and made more interesting for learners.  Music from each culture can serve as the added medium for learners to develop literacy skills in writing and mathematics.  Considering most can be found listening to music while performing routine tasks around the house or doing homework, the challenge is to take it step further and design a way for the music to become a part of the literary skill, learning activity.

There are statistics that summarize our learner’s usage of media; and children’s media usage is nearly 75% of a normal workweek.  Since a natural question to ask is, “How much homework time is lost to media?” this became an opportunity to think about optimizing the learners usage of media.

          When considering the amount of time California suburban students spend downloading music, it can be averaged out to be a daily activity for a lot of these students.  So, for my project, this data began to inform the initial stages of my design, and formed the project vision: not to change the habits of the learners, but enhance them by creating learning environments that tailor to their educational and musical needs.
          So the learner I’m thinking of now is a 4th or 5th grade student who is not achieving mathematics proficiency levels in number operations; and this typically will be a minority student according to the data.  They spend a lot of time consuming music, either by listening or downloading.  Moreover, as students in an institution, they can be found disconnected from with literary content as taught in schools, and they have a need to connect with these literary skills because their future depends on it (Figure to Left).  With these literary skills, comes chances to take advantage of job opportunities and contribute back to society; the very reason parents are sending their children to educational institutions.  Without these literary skills, what can we expect from these kids’ future?


Project Vision



Virtual Simulation Prototype to house Edubeats function and experiences.

I am specifically interested in using music as a medium to organize thinking and learning to represent a confluence of math and English literary skills.

In short, I am interested in using music to give a better impression and perspective of literacy skills as they are taught in school teaching math (order of operations) and English (verse writing) literacy skills.  Currently, I can only imagine this confluence of literacy skills as a virtual simulation game; using incentives and leveling up features, which typically engage students in a musical environment: “somehow, the cerebellum is able to remember the ‘settings’ it uses for synchronizing to music as we hear it, and it can recall those settings…” (Levitin, 59).  I am betting on this fact to kick-start (as the main activity) the math activity, as described below.

Better teaching or a better learning experience? The better experience (constructionist) is one that optimizes literacy skills (oral, written, and technological).  In the spirit of Seymour Papert who preaches about creating meaningful learning experiences through technology for learners, this activity should be shaped into a learning experience that elicits the learner’s creative skills while listening to music, all while capitalizing on the concept of literacy and it’s value in education.

For this paper, literacy describes the way our culture thinks about knowledge and learning.  In a survey, a student attending Stanford describesliteracy as “a fourth grade writing level, and pre-algebra”.  This stood out because of the very fact that the target audience is 4th and 5th grade students.  This activity should be a framework where the symbiotic relationship between all literacy skills are at work and provides the learner with their daily dose of music.  Ultimately, this activity should give the learner the opportunity to have successes and advantages of using math and English literacy skills.  Fourth and fifth graders are in a perfect position to take advantage of such an experience that aligns with common core standards as defined in the state of California.  The bigger question is, how much of an impact can be made for our target audiences experience in learning math and English?  Research shows that “a higher level of self-efficacy improves students’ academic performance” (Adriano, 20), thus a certain set of principles must be defined as a prescription to allow such an experience to take place.  It is cliché to mention, when parents enroll their child in school, they expect their child to read and write, and to learn the math. However, the literacy skills in these subjects alone give the impression of future success, and this paper offers a way to maximize this learner’s future.


PictureThis product must be developed in stages: math, then English components will be developed first and considered the endogenous components of the activity – where the context is the game play (Squire, 25). Last, we’ll bridge the gap of both literary skills with an exogenous story line that includes the music. By doing learner testings that answer questions about the best way to present this activity to the learners, the best story line will be learned? If we include all the bells and whistles offered through technology, this exogenous story line could simply be a virtual simulation game with an avatar in aSimCity environment, wrapped in a story line that appeals to our target audience. It would include incentives or badges that are calibrated to help with the transitions, keeping the user doing math problems and writing. For this reason, I am thinking Edubeats could ultimately reward learners with beats for their educational prowess (captured by Math Swag Points) they demonstrate by participating in the activity. Having access to real live beats provided by real musicians inspiring to keep the learner learning – that would be ideal in a utopia. At this point, the endeavor of this project seems larger than a Master’s project, however, this is the overall direction of where I would like this project to move. Since the products to be developed during each stage can function as two separate products; independent of the overall virtual simulation (exogenous component), there will be many opportunities to develop more than one valuable product based on the fact that many topics (i.e. the order of presidents), could be mapped onto the keyboard, and our learners’ musical interest are not monolithic. So, in dealing with literacy, the topics become math and English.








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It is the design of such a product that assessment will have to occur in stages and at an opportune time that address engagement and learning development.  Since this study has been IRB approved, a learner test study, to see if learning is actually taking place, has been designed and once a proper flow was developed for the learners; then and only then can we proceed to do a proper learner study.  Unfortunately, the development process of the prototypes took longer than expected and proper learner tests could not have been administered.  Throughout the development when learner testing was conducted, each learner informed the future design of the prototypes.  Therefore, at this stage of development, any sign of learning that was taking place was immediately informing the design of the prototype.  Therefore, in future studies it will be important to carry out the learner study, mainly: 1) Are math proficiency levels improving for learners; and 2) Can the learners write meaningful metaphors and similes.

However, there were pre-tests and post-tests conducted to all learners about their engagement with the product.  In the end, learners preferred this activity compared to a paper and pencil activities (graphs below).  From the surveys, there is a good reason to believe that learning is taking place because most learners felt that the Edubeats activities were a good way to learn math, English, and music (graphs below).  From the results, there’s an assumption that music is being used to reinforce topic components in math – order of operations, and English – writing verses using metaphors and similes.

Survey Results


       At this point, this study is in position to generate the next assortment of data concerning evidence in learning.  Furthermore, assessing the products design principles with more scrutiny will be done in multiple rounds of pretests and posttests with learners to generate such data.  In addition, testing the activity in classrooms is now being considered based on findings from current learn testings.


Aha! Moments


          During the activity, some quotes that stand out are listed above.  Quotes and dialogue excerpts from learners should be thoroughly analyzed and tested against the products design principles.  Moreover, most of the learning seems to take place during group activities when learners are supporting each other during the activity.  Steps to code the learner’s discourse should be considered in further studies in more detail.  Learners were found quite often-saying phrases like, “Don’t takeaway my swag points!” and this was a sign that the points were a factor in how the learner was feeling during the activity.  In addition, how some learners responded to the swag points was interesting.  While some learners stuck to the task of the activity to score 400 points, some learners enjoyed getting Math Swag Points .  Again, how this contributes to learning should be based on further study’s, however, there is some reason to assume the Math Swag Points may contribute to raising the level of some learners self-efficacy – which hopefully leads to improved test scores. Some learners even discussed the sounds in great detail; even being able to distinguish which specific sounds were not correct, “the second [tone] was off!” (or something similar) was a common phrase.   This proves the theories that this activity has been based on, however, it would be ideal to know on what level these tones contribute to the learners understanding of the content, as well as how the music is reinforcing the content.
          Concerning literacy, by the learner following through and singing the verse they wrote to the beat they earned, is the ultimate display of the power of literacy.  It is my bet that the learners will not understand the quality of the experience by themselves; however, it does make room for mentors and educators to discuss the value of literacy skills in a context that can be better received – that way this activity becomes one big metaphor for valuing literacy skills as they are taught in school and valuing education.  This learner would have truly demonstrated a sense of ownership by singing their song which is meaningful to them so that others can potential see and share; this is the power of literacy when the learner can effectively shape their world using literary devices as they are taught in school.


o   The three pianos were important because it minimized the number of clicks the user made.  I noticed through the number of clicks the users were making, I was loosing the attention of the learners.  So designing an activity with the minimum number of clicks resulted in better experience for the learner.

o   The Math Swag Points were a good motivator.  The learners reacted very well trying to get more points.  To them they were feeling good receiving Math Swag Points, and this translates to the amount of math and English work they had to complete.  As a result, they felt really good completing the activity if they received a lot of Math Swag Points; and this seemed to improve their self-efficacy.  More time to conduct the study is needed to actually determine if learning is taking place and the learners scores improve.o   More instruments may improve the learner’s interest in the activity.  Being able to take advantage of these opportunities to keep the learner engaged may be more advantageous in future development.o    Though not intended, this activity was better as a group activity where the learners could support each other through the activity.  Through dialogue, the learners were able to reinforce their understanding of the order of operation through sounds; and were motivated to write verses with metaphors and similes to a beat that potentially they could be a song they sing together – a very memorable moment.  Methods to take advantage of this product as a group activity should be investigated in more detail since this is the scenario that had the best results.


What Next?


          Currently, there are no products developed to teach the order of operations as I described or to encourage users to become productive writers – at the same time.  The products that do exist either: are popular songs remixed by amateur artist teaching what the order of operations (PEMDAS) is on Youtube2 3 4 , musical devices without any confluence to any literacy skills as described, virtual worlds without any confluence to literacy skills as described, and the strongest tools out on the market that give users tools to enhance their literacy skills are Scrivener and Evernote.  They unfortunately, don’t assign tasks in the method as is described in this paper such that the user is encouraged to continue writing.  There is theory that supports the power of music.  Levitin says that, “Music is distributed throughout the brain” (9).  Levitin goes on to say that, “no one until now has taken all this new work together and used it to elucidate what is for – the most beautiful human obsession.  Your brain on music is a way to understand the deepest mysteries of human nature” (12).  Since Levitin points out the fact the research isn’t as prominent in this area, there is the possibility that even with the best research used to develop this product, there’s will be many unforeseen failures along the way that can ultimately change the design of this game, however, it is a road worth pursuing.
“It is only the attempt to write down your ideas that enables them to develop” (Pea, 1).

-Ludwig Wittgenstein

Current Product









Music Reinforcement

        Previously, I mentioned the abstraction of tunes as a source of feedback for the learner.  There have been studies to prove the positive effects music-reinforcement has on learning.  “Music listening has functioned as reinforcement contingent upon proper social behavior, upon the number of correct math problems completed in a specific time period, and upon correct scale singing.  One finding revealed that sixth-grade black students in an elementary school preferred music listening to candy when given a non-contingent “payoff” although candy was slightly, but significantly, preferred when the “payoff” was contingent upon improved scale singing performance” (Madsen et al, 52).  Coupled with Schellenberg’s findings of the “Blur Effect” there’s good reason to believe that using music the learner is interested in can be used as reinforcement and still accomplish the same results as Madsen (et al.) implies.
          The power of music can be seen by the remarkable results of academic time spent learning math while listening to music.  “Investigation revealed that academic time could be cut in half with an increase in correct mathematic responses when music listening activities were used as reinforcement for correct responses. The other related study demonstrated that music subject matter could be effectively programmed via closed-circuit television to develop music listening skills for first-grade disadvantaged students” (Madsen et al, 52).  This gives strong implication that same results can be achieved by the use of touch-screen interactive technologies (i.e. mobile devices and iPads), which provide an added layer of interaction, agency, and engagement, creating a relationship between music, mathematics, and English being learned.In general, Dan Levitin, a PhD Neuroscientist at McGill University and a visiting professor at Stanford, mentions in his book, This is Your Brain on Music, “music is distributed throughout the brain” (9).  Through his research the activities that I am proposing in math and English can be considered one big brain activity, and this is a good way to view the activity.

Verse Writing

In Theory, It’s One Big Brain Activity


                     A Metaphor  – Where Learning Takes Place
          By providing an environment for one to develop the skills to become more familiar with a particular writing structure – verse, as thought of in poetry and music includes metaphors, analogies and similes, and allegories as taught in 4th and 5th grade standards.  Specifically in verse structure the learner typically leverages their strength in story telling (narratives) and this actually is a good thing to express while learning.   Moreover, when it comes to using metaphors and similes, research shows that it is a physical connection in the brain.  In 2008 at The Commonwealth Club, George Lakoff an American cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley discusses concepts from his new book, The Political Mind.  In it, he says that, “a metaphor is recognized through a neuro-structure in the brain…every word in every language is defined relative to a frame” (Lakoff, 161).  Here we begin to see that metaphors play a very important role in how we all engage with the “world”, or depending on your fluency in metaphor, “worlds”.
          Other types of writings structures include paragraph writing, essay writing, report writing, academic writing, fiction writing, and legal writing which all have structures which define them.  And more writing structures can be categorized, however, the point is to develop literacy skills and strategies by becoming more familiar on how to use one writing structure that will set one up in acquiring additional literacy skills and become writers because of the freedom to be creative [verse writing] structures provide (Womelsduff, 23).  Moreover, Womelsduff used six criteria to guide her students into writing meaningful content that her students would use to evaluate each other with.  These criteria are:  ideas and content, organization, sentence fluency, word choice, voice, and conventions.  It was the students’ task to convey something that they were passionate about that is interesting using similes, metaphors, and correct syntax and punctuation whole presenting them in a very meaningful way (25).  These strategies were adopted, as a strategy to develop the best methods to get the learners to write metaphors of their own while creating Edubeats.
          After this activity, learners would have created meaningful writings.  And although not immediately a part of this activity, a supplementary activity would be to shape the learner’s writings to have proper vocabulary terms and grammar marks.  At least it’s a hypothesis that the learner will better receive this activity because the learner will be using their own writing, and hopefully it will continue their meaningful learning experience.

Cognitive Performance

In Theory, It’s One Big Brain Activity


                   Cognitive Performance and Intelligence

          So how does this all tie together with music?  Does music actually make you smarter? It’s hard to say with evidence that convey music listening to stimulate alpha-brainwaves which are better known to describe a subject as “calm” or “tranquil” (Wagner, 5), but who is to say this is not an advantageous state of mind intellectually?  Music listening and music lessons have been claimed to confer intellectual advantages. To be specific, Schellenberg’s research shows that “music lessons cause improvements in intellectual ability” (Schellenberg, 319).  These abilities include:  reading, mathematical, verbal, and spatial abilities.  Taking advantage of this knowledge in the context of improving the perception of literacy skills for learners will only be perfected by trial and error especially if music listening and music lessons short-term and long-term cognitive benefits are not backed by any kind of formula or prescription of how to elicit these type of results.   From Schellenberg, two important points can be utilized to develop such a product.  First, children perform better on spatial test after listening to pop music (Blur Effect) compared to listening to music by Mozart (Mozart Effect) or a scientific discussion and contributes to improving children’s creativity …”upbeat, age-appropriate music can improve listeners’ arousal level and mood, at least for short periods. In turn, effects of arousal and mood extend beyond measures of spatial ability to tests of processing speed and creativity” (318).

           Secondly,  “music promotes intellectual development because of its inherently abstract nature…a tune is defined solely by relational information” (Schellenberg, 320).  Since “tunes are abstractions” this is a perfect compliment to fundamental concepts taught in mathematics, order of operations, in which tunes can convey information.  Inherently, feedback in a non-traditional manner can be programmed for the learner as a sequence of tunes that resembles a mathematical expression being simplified by following the order of operations as it is taught in institutions (Levitin, 15).  (Throughout this paper, the term mapping will be used to refer to the arranging mathematical expressions on a keyboard, and coding the solution as a tune.)  In addition to “the association [to a] constellation of abilities that music lessons train and improve – abilities including focused attention and concentration, memorization, reading music, fine-motor skills, expressing emotions, and so on” are qualities that enable a learner (Schellenberg, 319).  Participating in activities where the learner listens to music they engage with can be beneficial to the learners development.

          It is important to know that this paper doesn’t claim music to be the sole answer our target needs to improve their understanding of literacy skills.  Schellenberg says that, “any association between music and intellectual functioning would be notable only if the benefits apply reliably to nonmusical abilities and if music is unique in producing the effects. The available evidence indicate that music listening leads to enhanced performance on a variety of cognitive tests, but that such effects are short-term and stem from the impact of music on arousal level and mood, which, in turn, affect cognitive performance; experiences other than music listening have similar effects (i.e. sipping coffee, or eating a small bag of candy)” (Schellenberg, 317).  According to Wagner’s research, this short-term effect may have something to due with the alpha waves produced by listening to music, which contribute to tranquil and calm states of mind that lead to not focusing or disuse of the rational mind (Wagner, 5).  Moreover, the uncertainty of the range of alpha waves and the diverse ways music listening effects the listener may contribute to its random effect on learners since the alpha wave range is between delta waves (comatose, deep sleep waves) and beta rhythm waves (alertness and externally oriented attention) (Wagner, 4).  Schellenberg goes on to state, “music lessons in childhood tell a different story. They are associated with small, but general and long-lasting intellectual benefits that cannot be attributed to obvious confounding variables such as family income and parents’ education. The mechanisms underlying this association have yet to be determined” (Schellenberg, 317).  Although music listening may have short-term or long-term affects intellectually and have no effect on variables such as family income (job), it’s my hypothesis that literacy skills will be learned in a meaningful way in this manner such that the learner appreciates them and raises their self-efficacy, and gives the learner their daily dose of music; optimizing the use of technology.